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Champions Now: Paying Attention to Emergent Properties

We’ve since completed Issues #4 and 5 for the Champions Now game. Discussion of the earlier session can be found here.

These sessions dealt with the fallout from the capture of the ex-Super Fuzz villains, with the big question being: where are we going to put them so they can’t break out of jail again?

For issue #4, only Doc Vanguard’s and Ghost’s players could make it. Doc took the lead on trying to deal with the villain issue and went to a meeting at the MDC in Brooklyn (where all the villains were being held in a makeshift “metahuman containment unit”). There he argued the case for allowing the Super Squad to take over these duties and promised he could build a better metahuman prison as part of Vanguard Tower. And Ghost used his invisibility and desolidification to spy on what was going on in the office of Steve Freedman, the crusading/grandstanding lawyer who had taken on the case of defending the ex-Super Fuzz villains (although he is notably not representing Noose or Detonator).

For issue #5, Doc’s player couldn’t make it, but everyone else was there. Sarge took up duty on-site at the MDC to help provide super-powered security to guard the villains. Ghost was drawn out by Vinny Misto’s crew (one of his Hunters), through their threat against Ghost’s contact on the Brooklyn PD, and during that confrontation Ghost came into conflict with Cadaver, a back-from-the-dead mobster with a grudge against his former associates and who sees himself as a righteous, avenging force. (Ghost and Cadaver’s “origin stories” are also intertwined, though, importantly, Cadaver is not part of a Hunted situation). And Force kept busy, first, trying to use his contacts in military black ops (who are part of one of his Hunted situations) to find out more about ways to help deal with metahuman containment/incarceration problems, and then later using his telepathic abilities to interrogate Talon.

Apart from straightforwardly enjoying our characters and our story, there are a couple of system-related things that came out of these sessions that have been interesting to me and which may be interesting to folks here.

First, we have seen emerging themes that were in no way anticipated or planned by me (or the players) during any of the original prep. Specifically, I noted that by the end of Issue #5 we had moved into the middle of Squadron Supreme-style ethical dilemmas about how to deal with super-powered bad guys once you’ve caught them. Should they all be drugged? Sent to some black site? Mind controlled into obedience? In retrospect, we can look back at the opening two statements (“The world is just coming to terms with the existence of super powers” and “Paranoid political thriller: history is made by bad men (or is it?) in New York City”) and say, well, of COURSE that’s exactly where we ended up. But my point is at no time during prep did I set out and say, “Let’s do The Squadron Supreme” or “I’m hoping this game drives straight towards those ethical dilemmas”. Moreover, I WOULDN’T have thought that in part because the idea of aiming, in the abstract, for those kinds of “ethical dilemmas” did not (and does not) appeal to me. On the other hand, that they are coming up in this specific way in this context with these characters makes them very engaging. 

Second, the absence and/or presence of Luck and/or Unluck has played a role in different ways. None of the player characters have any Luck or Unluck, but I have liberally spread both around through the various NPCs. (Noose’s Luck played a part in him almost escaping from Sarge during Issue #3.) For Issue #5, when I was trying to sort out the timing of “who will get the jump on who” in a scene with multiple sides racing to the same point -- Ghost, a group of Vinny Misto’s thugs, the NYPD, and Cadaver (who has 2d6 Unluck) -- instead of leaving it completely up to me to choreograph, I rolled Cadaver’s Unluck, coming up with a result of 2 core (“danger targets you”) which I decided meant that Cadaver would arrive just in time to be caught between a shootout between the gangsters and the police.

And we’ve had a situation where the absence of any Luck/Unluck (on either side) has been meaningful: when Ghost infiltrated the lawyer’s office in Issue #4, he had neither Luck nor Unluck, and the lawyer (who is a DNPC from a villain’s sheet) didn’t have Unluck as one of his situations. Ghost also (at the time) did not have Detective Work, so, while he was able to observe and take in what anyone who would have spent the day eavesdropping on the office could have found out (which was significant and important information), I decided that absent a successful use of Detective Work, absent any Awareness powers, and absent Luck/Unluck for any of the interested parties, Ghost would not be able to figure out (or have revealed to him) the missing piece of the puzzle he was looking for (which is, in fact, the connection between the lawyer and the villain for whom he is a DNPC).

Finally, I’m getting used to the way that the Situations for given villains and DNPCs can really drive prep, both in terms of direct inspiration and productive constraints. When prepping for sessions 4-5, my original idea with regard to what the ex-Super Fuzz villains would do when captured was that they would at first give their lawyer a chance to wage a kind of civil rights/public relations campaign, and wait on breaking out only if it looked like they were definitely going to be transferred to some kind of super powered black site/prison. However, looking over the situations for the villains, Domino has a physical situation related to dependence on cocaine, and so I decided that to play this character fairly meant that he was going to try to use his teleportation powers to get out on his own, leaving his team behind. Domino did manage to escape, and now the Now is more interesting than it would have been if I had just stuck to “my idea” and not looked to things already established (in this case, established as in written down on a Villain sheet).

All of three of these features of the system point towards the way that Champions Now requires and rewards giving up completely on the idea that the way to an engaging story is for someone at the table to grab control of it and take it “where they want it to go”. 
 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I don't have much else to say, because I worked pretty hard so that people who wanted to play this way, could do it.

I'm interested in the heroes as expressions (that word again) of the players, or rather, the players' sense of knowing them and being ready to play them come what may.

Specifically, now that Ghost has been played through these experiences, who "is" he, "what" is he in terms of an enjoyable fictional presence?

As I mentioned, I was wary of the way Ghost's player conceived this character at first; a little worried that he was built defensively both in terms of powers (desolid, invisible, would-be invincible ninja) and in backstory (very byzantine and busy but with no obvious human connections). In play, I have been pleasantly surprised by how things have turned out, although Ghost remains the least vivid of the four characters in some ways.

First the stuff that is working:

Of the four player characters, Ghost is the most straightforwardly heroic and least compromised by his past; he's pragmatic without being ruthless, which sets him off nicely from Doc and Force, who are more Machiavellian, and Sarge, who is heroic but reckless. Ghost has also been unwilling to step up to a leadership role, even though in some ways he would be the most competent at it -- and that has lead to some interesting in fiction tension. 

Issue #5 has been a major turning point: up until here, Ghost had been very successful in using his ninja/stealth skills to always stay one-up on his opponents, leading to him being instrumental in the overall success the team has had so far. But in the 4-way confrontation among the gangsters, the police, Cadaver, and Ghost, his attempt to deal with things through subterfuge/stealth failed -- leading to the death of an innocent (or at least as innocent as they get in a James Ellroy-inspired world) and, more importantly, leading to a revelation that trying to control every situation to minimize risk isn't always going to be an effective strategy. Similarly, while he was able to defeat Cadaver during the fight, he realized afterwards that he didn't have a good idea about what to do with Cadaver once he was defeated (as waiting around for the police would have led to Ghost having to answer some difficult questions) -- and so ended up having to let him go.

Having said that, Ghost's personal, everyday life stuff has been very weak (the other three characters are much richer in this regard, with a good balance so far between what we've seen of them being super and what we've seen of them dealing with their personal lives). The personal corner of the triangle was underdeveloped to begin with, and what was there was very "gamery", and, since we've started playing, I haven't been able to bring any of it out in an interesting way. Ghost's relationships with the NPCs who act as the "support" members of the super hero team have to a certain degree filled that void. This has been ok so far, and maybe even could end up being compelling (the idea that Ghost is the guy who is all about his job, versus the other characters who are trying to balance powers and personal stuff). However, it has led to a lack of a certain vividness or presentness in Ghost's characterization when compared to the other characters: we haven't seen the equivalent of Doc having to choose between dealing with super villain issues and going to take his daughter on a tour of the private school he's been trying to get her into, or Sarge trying to dodge calls from his ex-wife about child support.

Ron Edwards's picture

It reminds me of Revenant as played by Michael Stackpole, as he describes in The Evil that Lurks in the Hearts (this is from Champions III, the only rules supplement specifically associated with 3rd edition).

 

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